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Who can stay mad at Manny? Ramirez returns to Dodger Stadium on Thursday

Ramirez is increasingly laid-back about his 'mistake' and wants to thank L.A. fans. Did he need time to regain his form? Looks like he never lost it.

July 16, 2009|DYLAN HERNANDEZ

He was cheered in San Diego, met with indifference in New York, and was the target of only one "Chea-ter!" chant in three days in Milwaukee.

The most high-profile player to be disciplined under baseball's drug policy, Manny Ramirez appeared increasingly nonchalant about what he called his "mistake" in the days leading up to the All-Star break, as he was overheard laughing and telling teammates, "I haven't been paid in 50 days!"

Today, Ramirez will return to Dodger Stadium, where he expects the fans who fell under the spell of Mannywood to welcome him to the second half of the season with open arms.

"That's my town," he said.

As well as the Dodgers played without Ramirez -- they had baseball's best record at the end of his suspension -- it's clear they're a different team with him in the lineup.

The Dodgers, who slugged 24 home runs in their first 29 games, hit only 35 long balls during his 50-game exile. Scoring dropped from 5.55 runs per game to 4.40.

In their nine games since Ramirez returned, the Dodgers belted 17 home runs and scored 62 runs.

When Ramirez was close to coming back, Dodgers Manager Joe Torre and General Manager Ned Colletti cautioned that their $25-million left fielder might need time to regain his form.

He didn't.

Ramirez batted .378 and had an on-base percentage of .471 in his first nine games back. He hit three home runs, drove in nine runs and scored eight. He ran the bases without any problems, resembling the turbo-charged force who last fall took the Dodgers to their first National League Championship Series in 20 years.

The mild receptions that Ramirez received on the road last week may be a reflection of the shift in social sensibilities that took place over the course of the so-called steroid era. Because so many star players have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs, what was shocking 10 years ago feels commonplace today.

Torre hopes that isn't the case.

"I hate to think they don't care," he said. "Part of the charm in this game is having the fans believe in everything you do."

Torre believes L.A.'s adoration of Ramirez is a different phenomenon.

"Nobody's trying to agree with what happened," he said, "but when it's all said and done, it's all about who this personality is."

The dreadlocks. The loose-fitting uniform. The smiles that convey a childlike love for the game.

The anticipation runs both ways, as Ramirez said he's looking forward to his reunion with his home fans as much as they are.

"I'm excited," Ramirez said. "I want to thank the fans of Los Angeles for the support they've given me. I can't wait. I can't wait."

The Dodgers at a glance:

Biggest first-half surprise

The Dodgers' bullpen, which was the greatest source of concern for management heading into the season, performed remarkably well. The unit's 3.31 earned-run average is second best in the majors.

Jonathan Broxton has been lights out in his first full season as the closer, converting 20 of 22 save opportunities. Ronald Belisario (2.42 ERA), Ramon Troncoso (1.75) and Jeff Weaver (3.48) far exceeded expectations. Rookie Brent Leach (4.26) has become a serviceable situational left-hander and Guillermo Mota (3.51) overcame a rough start to become a viable late-inning option.

Biggest first-half disappointment

Russell Martin and Rafael Furcal didn't look like themselves at the plate.

Martin, who hit 32 home runs in his first two full big-league seasons, had only two home runs in the first half to go with a .258 average and 27 runs batted in. Furcal, who missed 4 1/2 months last season because of back problems, hit only .256.

Both players showed signs of improvement. Martin batted .343 over his last eight games and Furcal .373 over his last 10.

At this pace

Andre Ethier could become the first Dodger to hit 30 home runs since Adrian Beltre had 48 in 2004. Ethier has 18 home runs in the Dodgers' 88 games, putting him on pace for 33.

Reasons to be excited

The Dodgers survived Ramirez's 50-game ban and opening-day starter Hiroki Kuroda's two-month stint on the disabled list.

Chad Billingsley (9-4, 3.38 ERA) rebounded from a nightmarish playoff experience to become the team's most reliable pitcher. Matt Kemp (.320, 11 home runs, 50 runs batted in) is gradually realizing his potential.

The maturation of the players in their mid-20s is complemented by the calming presence of veterans such as All-Star Orlando Hudson, Casey Blake (12 home runs, 55 runs batted in), Brad Ausmus, Mark Loretta and Juan Castro.

Reasons to be concerned

The bullpen already has logged 302 innings, second-most in the majors. Broxton has an injured toe that kept him out of the All-Star game and is expected to linger for the remainder of the season. Belisario and Troncoso are on pace to shatter their career highs in innings pitched, and Belisario is already on the disabled list.

Eric Milton underwent season-ending back surgery Tuesday, leaving the Dodgers without a fifth starter.

Moves to ponder

Colletti said his priority heading into the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31 is to acquire a veteran reliever who can pitch in the seventh or eighth inning. But with the Dodgers this close to being World Series material, Colletti at least has to think about pursuing a top-of-the-line starter such as Roy Halladay of Toronto or Cliff Lee of Cleveland.

See you in October

Unless Ramirez gets suspended again, the Dodgers figure to score a bunch of runs. They might do that even if he does.

The key is pitching. Lacking a bona fide ace, this team appears better designed to win a division title than a playoff series. Trading for Halladay or Lee would make a big difference. Billingsley, who had an outstanding first half, needs to pitch deeper into games more consistently to lessen the burden on the bullpen.

--

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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